That so much attention and renown has come to a man born 100 years ago, the son of a lightning-rod installer who improved his lot in life by becoming a saloon keeper, tests all the normal powers of comprehension. How could such admiration and distinction be so perpetuated in a fickle world where heroes come and go with the changing of the tides?
The exception in this scenario is in the mere mention of the name Babe Ruth.
There has never been a career that seems more fiction than fact, except all the documention, including testimony of witnesses and numbers in the record book, than that of Ruth.
He coupled ability and personality in near-equal proportions. Ruth was beloved because he was a package of fun and frivolity who never took life or himself too seriously. Education and sophistication -- a word he couldn't spell or understand -- never changed him. In a baseball game, he was able to do things no player, before or since, has even approached.
Stop to consider that the celebration of his birthday posthumously, Ruth turning 100, has evolved into an enormous occasion in his hometown of Baltimore while major newspapers all over the country devote lengthy stories to the event and radio-TV networks offer special tributes. All because of what Ruth represents to America.
The Baltimore Sunpapers produced a commemorative section that has collectors clamoring for copies. His birthplace at 216 Emory St. was restored because of the interest of a former mayor, Thomas D'Alesandro III, who listened to the pleas of Paul Welsh, a former reporter for The Sun, or else it would have been bulldozed into obscurity.
As it is now, the old Ruth address is not only a baseball shrine but a registered national historical landmark. The Babe Ruth Birthplace Museum has just been renovated and updated by financial grants, materials and services from 49 individuals and companies, including The Ryland Group Inc., which made an enormous contribution to the success of the revamping effort.
For the centennial gala, blowing out the candles on the 100th birthday cake, two of Ruth's grand-daughters were to be given the honor. More than 30 relatives of Ruth, counting nieces and nephews, have come to Baltimore for the ceremonies and gathering at his old house today.
Later today, the ground-breaking for the eventual erection of a statue of Ruth was to be held at Oriole Park. It was earlier planned to put the bronzed Ruth creation, as sculptured by Susan Luery, at a plaza-like area on Russell Street, but that has been changed and it will be placed, more appropriately, at the ballpark.
The actual statue will be unveiled May 13, either before or after a civic luncheon to be held in Ruth's memory, at the Marriott Hotel. Scheduled to be present are announcer Mel Allen and a daughter, Julia Ruth Stevens.
"What has happened, in the way of coverage, surpasses our highest expectations," said Michael Gibbons, director of the museum. "Just last night I was doing a broadcast about Ruth to Johannesburg, South Africa, and for the last 10 days it has been nonstop requests from all over the United States."
The Ruth mystique is unrelenting. The museum, with Greg Schwalenberg, assistant director, arranging the new displays, has an exhibition portraying Ruth via paintings, photographs, sculpture and even music. There are nine antique song sheets on display, which means that nine different writers, including Irving Berlin and a number called "Along Came Ruth," tried capturing the Babe in lyrics during the 1920s and '30s.
An almost endless number of tribute poems continue to be presented. There's a 30-stanza work by Stanley Fisher of Baltimore, and another exceptional one by Bill Daluka of Baltimore and Houston. Daluka's contribution, in part, offers this:
"In the legend, it's said, to a sick boy in bed,
"And his promise is no idle whim,
"That on the very next day, the Babe was to play,
"The home run he'd hit was for him."
Attorney-athlete Paul "Knobby" Harris, whose father played with and against Ruth on the sandlots of Baltimore, has researched the lineage of Ruth, even to visiting the graves of his parents. Harris also has a clipping from The Sun of Oct. 18, 1915, that told of Ruth, after winning 18 games for the Boston Red Sox that season, pitching for Irvington against Catonsville after coming home.
He struck out seven and allowed only one hit in three innings. The catcher, who had trouble holding Ruth's pitches, was hit by a foul tip and couldn't continue. So Ruth went from pitching to catching. Yes, a left-handed catcher behind the bat for six innings, the same position he played in his formative years at St. Mary's Industrial School.
So the new-found fame Ruth attained with the Red Sox didn't change him. He wasn't so filled with his own importance that he couldn't play in a neighborhood rivalry against Catonsville, which included the four Maisel brothers -- Fritz, George, Ernie and William -- plus a cousin, Charles, one of the umpires.
The astonishing part to the saga of Babe Ruth is it continues now, unabated, almost a half-century after his death. An athlete commanding such incomparable attention, dead or alive, only serves to notify all of us that he was a rare species of undying allure.